|Issue No 119||16 November 2001|
Evan Jones on Informed Dissent
How has the Australian media performed in the post-September 11 period? Pretty uniformly ...
In 1986 I was living in the US, during the Iran-Contra Hearings under a Reagan Presidency. Arms had been secretly sold to an 'enemy', Iran, to obtain release of US hostages, with the finances also used to fund the Contra terrorists then undermining the left-wing Nicaraguan government. The atmosphere was stifling.
It is representative of American freedoms that the hearings, via the Congressional inquiry system, were being held at all. But the Government wasn't interested in disclosure, nor was it remorseful. There was George Shultz, Secretary of State and Bob Hawke's mate, covering up his underlings' dirty tricks. Shultz, senior executive of Bechtel Corporation (1974-82), which is a serial employer of ex-CIA operatives and a big player in Middle East construction, would certainly have been well informed of the character of American involvement overseas.
The media was obliging. The quality newspapers had the continuing defence of the imperial prerogative as their mission. Public television was restrained. Only independent radio (a medium presently under siege in the US) was detached from the sordid affair.
It was a relief to return to Australia and its media. There is an advantage to living on the global periphery, removed from the propaganda apparatus of empire. Yet in retrospect it may have been the irreverent strain in the Australian press, rather than its political savvy, that was a refreshing contrast to the turgid New York Times and Washington Post. With the events of September 11 and beyond, the response of the quality press in Australia has been disappointing, with a pervasive whiff of the colonial cringe.
One should have seen it coming, as the leading dailies were already primed for a mediocre response. The Australian's trio of Colonel Blimp Kelly, Staff Sergeant Sheridan and Lance Corporal Milne are pervasively humdrum, alike in a sense of their self-importance.
Kelly thinks that the ANZUS treaty compels us to follow the yanks into battle (Australian, 19 September). Rubbish. Kelly thinks that this is a war about values we share with the US (Australian, 13-14 October). Do these values include the bombing of Red Cross facilities in an impoverished country? Kelly claims to draw authority from Owen Harries, an Australian political scientist just back from a long stint within the inner sanctum of American right-wing circles. But Harries has recently urged caution - "Australia should proceed carefully and without illusion in dealing with its powerful ally. ... the priorities of the two countries are likely to differ at least as often as they coincide." (AFR, 9 October).
Sheridan thinks that the US has 'an outstandingly successful record in nation-building' (Australian, 27 September). Well, the 1947 Marshall Plan was a pretty good achievement, if you accept the marginalisation of left-wing forces throughout Western Europe, who had earned their stripes during the War, and the imposed hegemony of the political right. But US administrations have constructed nations around some low-life leaders (including South Korea and Formosa on Sheridan's list) and de-constructed plenty of other functioning nations whose leaders they didn't particularly like. Have Kelly and Sheridan read any history of American foreign policy?
Fairfax's flagships, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, were already weighed down with the likes of Gerard Henderson, P. P. McGuinness, Miranda Devine, and Imre Salusinszky.
Gerard distances himself from the hard right, but he has a job to do to keep the funds and the personnel flowing into his so-called think tank for which his Herald column is a convenient advertising medium. But Gerard was an ardent supporter of Bush's National Missile Defense before the events of September 11, so he can't be that bright. McGuinness has moved from iconoclasm to pedestrianism, and is increasingly incoherent. From one column to the next, he doesn't know which hat to put on - grand thinker, editor of a venal little right-magazine, local government councilor or general reactionary.
The embarrassing Salusinszky was given a compensatory income at the Fairfax broadsheets after being relieved of his column at the Australian Financial Review. It's like a personal Work for the Dole Scheme except that Imre already has a job and he's refusing to learn any new skills. Imre had originally been hired by the Fin Review to fill in for the loony-tune American-born humorist, Peter Reuhl, when Ruehl went to the old country for R&R. With Reuhl's return, there was one too many right-wing humorists at the Fin, and one of them wasn't funny. Salusinszky now holds down a significant Monday morning column, even though his knowledge of history and economics, on which he issues forth, is non-existent.
As for the unlovely Devine, it was clear that Herald management was already dumbing down its paper with her initial joint appearance from the Sunday Sun-Herald. The Sun Herald has itself been forced further down-market to rival the appalling Murdoch-owned Sunday Telegraph, so Devine is dragging down two papers simultaneously. Her father Frank has been dragging down the quality of The Australian for years, so it's in the family tradition. The 28 October issue of the Sun-Herald ran a human interest story on a bright young English girl who had joined the American air force and was now in the thick of the action. Presumably this hint of affirmative action made the bombing of Afghanistan more appealing to the readership.
The 27 September Herald article by Devine represented a low point. We can't have anybody asking for causes, and we can't have anybody casting a jaundiced eye on past American foreign policy. Has Devine read anything about American foreign policy? One suspects not. Has she even bothered to ask why the privatised airline security system was so slack as to permit the death of innocents? Back to the tabloids for you, Miranda.
In the meantime, David Flint, sometime Press Council Chairman (1987-97), was lamenting the state of the Australian press in the September issue of Quadrant magazine. Flint claims that the days of the press barons are over, that the press is run by the journalists, and the journalistic heights are commanded by left-wingers! Well did Henderson, Salusinszky and Devine hire themselves?
Both The Australian and Fairfax have run substantial reportorial coverage of the September 11 carnage and the 'war on terror'. In terms of coverage of events, much of this is good and some is excellent. It is in the opinion pieces, both from columnists and outsiders, that one gets a feeling for the editorial centre of gravity.
Within constrained parameters, there has been a rough balance of opinion. The Canberra Times is the exception, generally managing to avoid publishing any establishment functionaries at all. So it can be done.
Scott Burchill, a homegrown expert from Deakin University, had been a model of sanity (AFR, 21 September; Australian, 22 October). Burchill's Deakin colleague, Damien Kingsbury, made an informed counter-ideological intervention against John Keegan (below) on the simplistic treatment of non-Western cultures (Age, 10 October). Chalmers Johnson, an impeccably credentialled American conservative, looks to the arrogance and incompetence of successive American administrations to understand the anti-American terrorism (Canberra Times, 11 October). Monash University's Robert Wolfgramm laments the pro-war propaganda and the US' irrational response (Age, 23 October).
On the other hand, there has been much reproduction of uncritical defence of America's 'innocent victim' status, and of the administration's subsequent belligerent behaviour. The mentalities underpinning much of this response is a worry.
Walter Lacquer is the most informed of establishment correspondents (Australian, 2 October; Australian Financial Review, 5 October). He is a genuine expert on terrorism, and one of the founders of its study as a 'discipline'. Lacquer says forget about looking for causes in poverty, American influence, and so on - terrorism is essentially non-rational. Some substance there.
But in the 'war on terror', neither Lacquer nor the rest have mentioned state terrorism. As is common in the press, it took a cartoonist (Moir, Herald, 1 October) to state what is unmentionable for the wordsmiths. And speaking of state terrorism, here is Henry Kissinger pontificating that 'moderation is no option against terrorism' (The Age, 13 & 17 September). Why is the Australian press reproducing Kissinger as if he still carries legitimacy? If we are waging a genuine war on terror, then Kissinger should be in court facing trial rather than in print. One letter-writer to The Australian wondered whether Lacquer's 2 October article might actually have been ghost-written by Kissinger.
The 'white man's burden' crowd is well represented. The State Department's two consultant ideologues, Harvard's Samuel Huntington and Princeton's Francis Fukuyama, have provided the latest language for the difficulties the advanced and progressive 'West' (an undifferentiated entity) faces in dealing with the backwardness of the East (also undifferentiated). Huntington and Fukuyama differ - Fukuyama thinks that the 'liberal-democratic' West has already won hands down ('the end of history'), whereas Huntington thinks that the liberal secular West still faces a momentous battle with Islam.
Whatever their differences, Huntington and Fukuyama are the latest in a long series of ideologues that polarise humanity into the rational advanced superior camp and the irrational backward inferior camp. Fukuyama's argument is so manifestly silly that one has to question the motives or intelligence of editors who continue to give him a platform (Australian, 9 October; Herald, 12 October). These people deserve a crash course in Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), from which they emerge as part of a long line of myth creators about foreign cultures. But the American Right has declared a fatwa on Said, so everybody is excused from reading him.
John Keegan, defence editor of the London Telegraph, is a camp follower of the Huntington/Fukuyama brigade. "Westerners fight face to face, in stand-up battle. ... Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy." "This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative, productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals." (Age, 9 October).
Keegan appears to have been raised on Boys' Own and Biggles. The creator of Biggles, W. E. Johns, had rather pronounced hierarchical views about race. In Biggles Foreign Legionnaire (1954) the German is an evil but worthy adversary. But Mediterraneans and Arabs - well - they are absolutely inferior and untrustworthy types. And these days the good guys will clean up in Afghanistan just as surely as if Biggles, Algy and all the chaps were running the show.
The Australian Financial Review's Rowan Callick has spent the last decade or so in countries to Australia's north. Inexplicably, he follows suit. He quotes V. S. Naipaul, 'presciently': "Civilisation is the ability to stand outside yourself and consider yourself. Tribal people don't have this gift." (AFR, 22-23 September). The struggle with primitives has been blurred, says Callick, because of the West's dalliance with post-modernism which denies the existence of objective truth. Callick later puts bin Laden in a long line of dangerous absolutists, many of whom are westerners (AFR, 12 October). Perhaps the divide is not between West and East after all. In the same breadth, he absolves Jesus from a Palestine "dotted with would-be messiahs ... some going on to urge suicidal missions against the evil Roman Empire". Wasn't Western 'civilisation' built on Jesus' suicide mission against the Empire? So much for objective truth. And Callick is one of the AFR's resident intellectuals.
The Australian Financial Review has generally remained detached from political commentary on events after September 11. Emphasis continues on what the AFR likes best: nervous speculation on whether things are going up or down. The resident ideologue, Alan Mitchell, continues blithely on his jihad against any distortions to the sacred market mechanism. This is in spite of the fact that the rest of his newspaper is full of daily sightings of incompetence, greed and venality amongst market personnel. Thankfully, one of the AFR's staffers, Nick Horden, is an informed commentator. However, the standout feature of the AFR is its Friday Review section, edited separately. The Review supplement has published a greater diversity of informed opinion (helped by article length) than has appeared elsewhere.
But the main part of the AFR soiled its bed recently with the publication of Charles Krauthammer's call to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, a time for 'righteous might' (AFR, 1 November). "We are there to avenge 5000 murdered Americans and to protect the rest by killing those preparing to murder again." Yet Krauthammer admits that "not a single important Taliban leader has been killed or captured or has defected." So who are we killing? "We are expending enormous effort on dropping food." I think you mean cluster bombs, Charles, getting confused by the fact that food and bombs are the same colour. Manna from heaven for the Afghanis - all good Old Testament stuff of endless retribution.
Krauthammer is one of a group of American columnists introduced to AFR readers (the 'Washington Post Writers' Group') when the Canadian Conrad Black was a significant influence on the Fairfax share registry. In the current circumstances, we can be thankful that Black went home. Black owns the British Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and the Spectator, and the Jerusalem Post. Black is not sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, to put it mildly, and is an interventionist owner (is David Flint on the job?). So why are we still reading Krauthammer?
One of Black's writers, Bruce Wolpe, has stayed behind, and is now manager for corporate affairs at Fairfax. Wolpe claims that more than 100 nations are behind the American effort, and that "the forces of globalisation and modernisation have secured a decisive victory of the fomenters of terror and unholy war" (Age, 9 October). I would say somewhat exaggerated, and a trifle premature respectively. Wolpe is a fan of Fukuyama, but it's a worry when opinion-making elites end up believing their own propaganda.
There is no lack of Anglo-American imports who think that American interventions into other regimes has been weak and indecisive. Frank Devine, long-time Oz hack, wants Australia to get on board with the Americans on the say-so of William Safire, who has the USA shortly liberating the Middle East (Australian, 11 October). Why the USA hasn't liberated the Middle East already, after being intimately involved in the area for decades, is something of a mystery. Safire, sometime speech-writer for Richard Nixon and long-term Cold War functionary for the New York Times, has been reproduced down under for another round of sabre-rattling (Age, 13 September; 20 October).
Peter Beinart, editor of the appalling New Republic, thinks that the Americans have not intervened enough (Australian, 28 September). What one needs is an American or Western alliance takeover to run the country for a race that can't run it themselves. Max Boot, opinion page editor of the Wall Street Journal, says that the problem "has not been excessive American assertiveness, but insufficient assertiveness". "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets". (Australian, 19 October). Boot's knowledge of Afghani history seems to be fairly slim. Conservative English historian Paul Johnson recommends the occupation and administration of 'obdurate terrorist States' (AFR, 8 October). "Countries that cannot live at peace with their neighbours and that wage covert war against the international community cannot expect total independence." The jodhpured and pithy Brits are going to occupy the US then? They could do a re-count of the Florida Presidential votes while they're on the job.
And the British leadership could do with a more jaundiced treatment from the Australian media. Tony Blair got on the rostrum and declared war on greenhouse and poverty as well as terrorism. Epithets of 'statesman' were thrown around, but charlatan or mountebank might have been more appropriate. Simon Mann, European Correspondent for The Age, performed a rare exposure of Blair's shallowness and hypocrisy (Age, 12 October). Big Ear's war on poverty should start on the home front; as for democracy, he has been steadily dismantling it in his own party.
An ethical foreign policy immediately went out the window once Blair's Labor was elected, confronting that Britain's still substantial military-industrial complex had to have its export diet sustained. British Aerospace has just picked up a significant slice of the US Defence Department's $14bn. contract with Lockheed Martin for a new round of jet fighters. Keegan is a remnant of the imperial ideological baggage that justifies all this stuff.
During the Gulf War, the Guardian Weekly juxtaposed the language used by the British press to characterise the combatants (3 February 1991). Our chaps were 'brave, resolute heroes', etc., whereas the Iraqis were 'fanatical, ruthless mad dogs', etc. It is more heroic (and profitable for British Aerospace, etc.) to bomb civilian populations than it is to weed out the presumed evil. Language helps to shape opinion (and votes), and the Anglo-American press is at it again. Even the chauvinist characters in Biggles had more integrity than these defenders of 'freedom and democracy'.
The Fairfax and Murdoch presses have published myriad articles on the need for intelligent analysis and restraint, and of caution in giving the Americans a blank cheque. The Herald has published Brigadier Adrian D'Hagé, a Vietnam veteran, and who knows the realities of war first-hand (Herald, 18 October). Nevertheless, the presses has given only token recognition of informed dissent from international sources, sources from which they have readily drawn for establishment opinion.
There has been effectively non-recognition of recognisable dissenters from American foreign policy - Edward Said has appeared once (Age, 20 September). Noam Chomsky appeared locally, condemning Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories (Age, 23 August), but has not been represented since September 11. Neither has John Pilger. These are the left-wing nasties that Miranda Devine has railed against as akin to Taliban propagandists (Herald, 27 September). But as the local quality press is not printing these people, she can rest easier.
Robert Fisk has been represented (Canberra Times, 22 September; AFR, 22-23 September; Herald, September; AFR, 20-21 October) - but given Fisk's experience and enormous output on the issues, the representation has been slight. Token or no recognition has been given to other credentialed Anglo-American correspondents and academics, including Jonathan Steele, George Monbiot, Tariq Ali, Fred Halliday, Ahmed Rashid, William Pfaff and Michel Chossudovsky. The respectable Christian Science Monitor produced an important article, 'Why do they hate us?' (27 September), not picked up locally.
The informed contributions, reproduced in ZNet (USA), Common Dreams News Center (Canada) and Counterpunch (USA), from those named above and others, may as well not exist as far as the Fairfax and the Murdoch press are concerned. Nothing has been reproduced from the relatively detached (non-Black) Canadian press or Irish press. Nothing has been translated from Europe or Asia, and certainly nothing from the Middle East or South Asia.
More fundamentally, certain big picture issues are off the agenda - distillation of the long history of American foreign policy; the politics of oil, in particular; and the Palestinian question. The Australian occasionally covers the Middle East, often via the Sunday Times (cheap borrowings from another Murdoch paper); the Fairfax press not at all.
As for oil, Afghanistan doesn't have any, but it has a land mass essential for the transport of Caspian basin oil if its transport is to be kept out of the hands of the Russians and the Iranians. The American oil company UNOCAL has been working on this since 1995 (George Monbiot, Guardian, 23 October; reproduced in Common Dreams News Center, 25 October). After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban was seen pragmatically as the stable administration that could help UNOCAL in its vision. Taliban leaders were invited to Houston to be entertained. US official policy towards the regime during this period was acquiescent. Afghanistan, as always, is less important in its own right than as a vehicle for strategic control of the region, now threatened by China's ambitions as well. The death of Afghani civilians is of little consequence in the drive for a Western-oriented regime in the country. Freedom and democracy have nothing to do with it.
In a rare glimpse into the past by the Australian media, The Australian's Roy Eccleston interviewed an American academic, Shahrough Akhari, who happened to be the son of a minister in the Mossadegh government in Iran (Australian, 6-7 October). This was the government that was overthrown by the CIA and British Intelligence. Several sentences providing significant insight into future events that could easily have been missed.
Well Encyclopedia Britannica missed it, and not by accident. Quote: "The disturbed political situation during Mossadegh's premiership turned his nationalization triumph [of the oil assets] into a pyrrhic victory. His period in office ended in turmoil in 1953." No CIA action here. Merely internal instability, and the subsequent rise of the modernizing (if repressive) Shah, who was inexplicably undermined by hysterical clerics in the late 1970s.
The relatively easy victory in Iran ushered in a long and glorious international career of the multinational firm known as the CIA. The American media has been sanitizing the story ever since. The Australian media have generally followed suit. The Australian media, while making concessions to a modicum of pluralism, have skirted around the provision of a basic intelligence that would help us to understand the venality and the incompetence that is currently driving the carnage in Afghanistan.
Evan Jones is senior lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social Science at the University of Sydney
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